Fire up the DeLorean: A trip through The Siskiyou’s past

“Living North of The Boarder” by Rolando Flores (The Siskiyou, November 24, 1992)

“Americans have the right to be racists against us, this is their country,” said Maria Gonzalez from Guadalajara, Mexico, in a conversation with her seven-year-old daughter while she complained about how she was treated by some Americans.

Out of ignorance, maybe out of fear or maybe out of their cultural simplicity, migrants who come every year to this valley to work in the orchards have learned to accept and be quiet.

They come from all over Latin America and they are the only workers who fill the two-room shotgun-style houses at the Suncrest Orchard in Talent, and the one-room, 12-by-16 foot cabins at the Medford Pear Orchard, both owned by Naumes Inc.

All the workers have either a green card or a working permit. They pay a small amount a day for rent for their cabins. Some workers call them “heaven.”

At the Suncrest Orchard 14 cabins house from two to four people per unit. Their cabins are furnished with bunk beds with no sheets or blankets, a refrigerator, and a two-burner hot plate. The bathroom is outside with showers that they all share.

The showers work most of the time but when they don’t all the workers go to town to clean themselves. The day the visit to the camp took place the showers happened to be broken, and workers were unable to attend their weekly English class because they had gone to town.

Housing is the worst problem migrant workers face in Oregon. When the non-profit Community and Shelter Assistance Corp., based in Newberg, conducted a farm-worker housing survey last year, it discovered that only one-third of the 3,000 units available for workers in Oregon met all state standards.

In 1991, the Bureau of Labor and Industries collected $370,000 in unpaid wages for migrant workers in Oregon, seven times as much as in 1988.

In a previous interview with the Portland Oregonian, Labor Commissioner Mary Wendy Roberts agreed that wage collections are not as high as they could be, but said they are more than what the workers would have received if they hadn’t complained to the bureau.

But migrant workers do not complain, they feel fortunate with their small fortune – a roof, a job, and sometimes a car. They are afraid they may lose the little they have and also they do not want anyone to feel sorry for them, for they have chosen this type of life.

“They work hard, they study hard, and they play hard,” said Julie Venable, an English instructor from the Ashland Adult Learning Center, who has been teaching English to migrant workers for many years.

“If you can teach them to carry on a conversation and how to socialize they won’t be afraid anymore to learn,” said Venable, that way “they learn to think, they learn the basics, and they can work up and improve and integrate into the community.

Esther Rodriguez from Mexico said “working eight hours in this weather is very hard, that’s why we study English, it will help us to get a better job.”

For thousands of agricultural workers in Oregon, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was bittersweet. The law meant they could live here legally but without their families. Although some family members were eligible for permanent residency cards from the immigration service, those relatives who have never worked in the United States were denied permission to live here.

Helmer Noe Guzman from Guatemala said “I came here escaping from the Guerilla …, one time they even put a rifle against my forehead.” Guzman sends money regularly to his wife and three children who are still in Guatemala. “I would like to bring them here, this is okay, they treat us well here …, it is okay here,” Guzman said.

When asked how they are treated, adults have only words of gratitude, while children speak openly about how they see people “looking down” at them at the stores, at school or even on the street. “I have many friends but none of them Americans,” said a 10th-grader, “but that’s because I don’t speak English very well,” she explained.

“On the whole, the community is very open-minded,” said Venable, “there has been a lot of racism in the valley before, racism is a fear of something different but things are changing, the attitude is changing.”

At the Medford Pear Orchard a shower and a kitchen in each cabins are proof that things are changing, slowly maybe or maybe too slowly, but hopefully changing.”

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